Most companies have the great and noble intention of keeping their employees safe and accident-free. Often, though, it’s their approach that misses the mark. Despite a commitment from leadership and an appropriate budget, they rarely attain the desired results.

So what goes wrong?

The Four Big Safety Misses

Safety is both an art and a science. The science side of the equation are all those quantifiable things that are relatively easy to identify and measure to track your progress in regulatory compliance and JSA activity. However, the human side – the art – is a different story. It consists of behaviors, attitudes, morale, and motivation – important stuff, but very difficult to measure and influence.

True success is accomplished when both sides are addressed.

I am compelled to make you aware that I am not a safety expert. My experience and expertise lies in sales, marketing, and communication. I just happen to have spent the last 27 years in the safety field.

Over those 27 years spent helping companies protect their employees, I have identified four areas of influence on the human side of safety that are often the “big misses” for organizations.

Understanding and addressing these areas may unlock the key to your success.

Miss #1: Organizational Safety Structure

Many companies exclaim the importance of safety in their organization from leadership with a “top-down” approach. This top-down model often consists of the CEO having the safety manager report directly to them as a sign or symbol of just how important safety is. It's intended to show that safety is a top priority in the organization.

Despite those fine intentions, this approach often fails in practice.

The problem in most organizational safety structures is that the safety manager has very little influence over the actions or priorities of other members of the organization. Case in point: have you ever scheduled safety training for 30 employees and only had six of them show up? That's because the priority of that training was overruled by someone else in the chain of command – most often the front-line supervisor. Bingo! This is where the fundamental breakdown occurs: supervisors do not report to the safety manager. Supervisors do what is important to their immediate boss, and in many cases that priority is production. We preach safety, but when the rubber meets the road, production is king – that's why supervisors make the call to keep people on the line. It is very rare that the consequence for missing safety training is as great as missing production metrics.

How do we solve this? Simple: turn the problem into a solution.

Let’s start with leadership. Leadership must make safety a top priority at every level, and each level must get measured on its performance. A good suggestion is for the CEO to put safety into hands of a top level executive like a VP. This allows the CEO to lead but not have to be involved in the day to day meetings and other responsibilities. The VP will be much more available to attend meetings and offer support from the top.

Next, we address supervisors. First, we need to educate them about the problem and ask them to fix it. They must take ownership of the solution if you want things to change. This will require some additional training on safety, leadership, communication, and emotional intelligence. Very often these skills are lacking because many supervisors received promotions because they were great producers, not talented leaders.

What can make it even worse is that some supervisors may not have been the best safety examples. They might have got the job done doing “whatever it takes,” safety be damned.

Miss #2: Employee Communication and Connection

The safety message must be personal to the employee, and not just focused on the company. Your message must be about the personal benefits the employee will receive from the safety effort.

Too many times, companies hang a big sign on the fence updating workers on how many days they've gone without an injury. While this is a great reminder to stay safe, no employee makes significant behavior changes for MOD ratings, insurance cost reductions, or even for that thermos with the company logo they'll get if they go an entire year. You must make it about the employee and what is important to them.

So, what will it take to make a change? Think about why we change our behaviors. Nobody changes their diet, quits smoking, or exercises daily just for a high five from the doctor on their blood work. No, we do it for significant personal and emotional reasons. Maybe its because we are going to become a grandparent, we're approaching retirement and want to be healthy for it, or it could be a family history that isn't working in our favor so we need to make some changes before it's too late. This is the same approach you must take when communication your safety message – make it about them!


You may enjoy this free webinar: Take your Safety Culture to New Heights - Click here to register


Miss #3: Employee Engagement

How are you going to get employees involved? Well, first of all, be sure that you have addressed the first two misses we just discussed: get leadership on board from top to bottom (especially those supervisors) and have a strong, personal message that hits home with your employees.

The next thing to remember is that you shouldn't let the perfect get in the way of the good.

I have coached youth athletics at virtually every level, from 5-year-old girls’ softball to highly competitive high school boys' hockey. I have learned as many lessons from that as I have from my 28 years in the business world. With every organization or team I have worked with, I have almost always been able to apply the 20-60-20 rule. In every group there are the 20% at the top of the list who are willing to help right off the bat, provided it is a relatively good idea. Then you have the 20% that are at the bottom of the list. They're far less cooperative and might include a few snipers and gripers that love to sabotage good ideas. Finally, you have the remaining 60% that fall in the middle. Some sit toward the top and others toward the bottom, but they do not distinguish themselves for either group. You have the opportunity to influence where this group ultimately lands.

This rule is why good ideas fail. Too often, we're trying so hard to get 100% participation that we focus most of our time and attention on trying to get the bottom 20% engaged.

To be successful, you need to focus on that 60% in the middle. Some of them will float to the top rather easily and others may need some convincing or just need to see that this time things are different. But either way, you can win them over. Before you know it, your top group is 50% and the bottom group will have shrunk to 10%.

How did that bottom group shrink? Simple – you ignored them. If you ignore them, they will stand down. Or, better yet, the rest of the employees will stand up to them and tell them that they need to get on board or step aside.

Every team I ever coached has had this play out in the locker room. As soon as the majority of the team had banded together for the cause, they made it clear to the bottom feeders that they were pressing one – with or without them. In sports and in business, it's amazing to watch this dynamic at work – players and employees actually change and join in or they stand down or even quit.

Miss #4: Taking a Marketing Approach to Safety

Let’s face it, we all market the safety message. But most safety managers have not been trained in sales, marketing, and effective communication.

Find a great message and stick with it. At our company, we use “Safe 4 the Right Reasons.” It's a repeatable mantra that comes with a hand gesture: flashing four fingers to remind you of the people counting on you to come home tonight. You can use any message you like, just make sure it relates to your employees' best interests.

Stick with the same message and avoid the “flavor of the day” approach.

Here's a little quiz: can you name the company associated to the following slogans?

  • Just do it!
  • 15 minutes will save you 15% on your car insurance
  • Finger licking good

I'm guessing you scored three out of three, because each of these companies have used a consistent slogan for years and it worked. They might have changed their spokespeople, but never their core messages.

Don't change your message, but change the way you deliver your message. Spoken word, signage, video, and electronic communication (text & email) are all effective delivery methods.

The last key component to effective marketing is frequency. Keep your message out there so your employees can keep receiving it.

With these key components, you can approach safety like a marketing campaign.

To get started with your safety campaign, create a budget. Create a budget that you believe will allow you to be successful with your campaign. Avoid using your past experience and prejudice when making the budget – this often results on teams asking for what they think will be approved, not what they feel they need to be successful. Shoot for the stars and if leadership asks you to shave it down, then so be it. You will adjust if you have to, but there's no reason to limit yourself before you even ask.

The budget must be an annual commitment. This way, not matter the circumstances, the resources are committed. Sometimes people get weak in the knees if they don't see immediate results and may decide to pull the plug or cut back. But this is a marathon, not a sprint; it took you a long time to get where you are and it may take a while to get where you want to be.

Next, establish what success looks like. Is it zero incidents? Would a 50% reduction in incidents be a success? Discuss and define goals and reasonable levels of success.

Include a return on investment (ROI). We all know that you can't put a price on safety, but in the world I live in, the bottom line is often the bottom line. It is relatively easy to establish your costs for the incidents you have had in the past or simply head to the OSHA website and use the Safety Pays calculator to plug in the accidents you want to reference. This tool allows you to show the business case for safety to company leaders and allows them to see how eliminating accidents and injuries can subsidize a robust campaign by investing in safety instead of paying compensation, insurance, and fines.

If you are skeptical about the campaign approach or question the power of marketing (and if you are over 40) just answer the following question: what are the ingredients of a Big Mac?

If you know the answer – congratulations! You remember an ad that was run 40 years ago. McDonald’s didn’t get you to remember a slogan; they got your to remember a recipe!


You may enjoy this free webinar: Take your Safety Culture to New Heights - Click here to register